High follower count not the best driver of engagement on social media

By our News Team | 2022

New study finds that social media influencers with an intermediate follower count represent the engagement ‘sweet spot’ for brands.

Researchers from three European academic institutions have published a new article in the American Marketing Association’s peer-reviewed Journal of Marketing that examines which social media influencers are most effective at turning advertising budgets into greater engagement.

The study, entitled ‘Finding Goldilocks Influencers: How Follower Count Drives Social Media Engagement’, is authored by Simone Wies, Alexander Bleier and Alexander Edeling. They are from Goethe University Frankfurt, Frankfurt School of Finance and Management (both Germany), and KU Leuven (Belgium).

Influencer Marketing

Photo by George Milton from Pexels

The trio notes that, despite the growing popularity of influencer marketing, advertisers as yet do not have a solid understanding of how engagement arises – such as which influencers are most effective at turning advertising budgets into greater engagement. 

A main screening criterion for advertisers and marketers is an influencer’s follower count, which defines the size of the audience an influencer can directly reach.

But (a big ‘but’), does a high follower count mean that an influencer will generate engagement with sponsored content? Or are small influencers best to create engagement? The new study finds that influencers with an intermediate follower count represent the engagement sweet spot.

High followers or high engagement?

Advertisers face a tricky choice. As Weis explains: “On one hand, advertisers want to leverage an influencer’s reach, which is the number of followers exposed to an influencer’s content and that, by definition, increases in indegree. On the other hand, users on social networks often seek interactive, communal relationships where they feel connected. Influencers with larger indegree often lack sufficient resources or interest to enter into meaningful, frequent interactions with their millions of followers.”

Some advertisers have identified this issue, cautioning that high indegree influencers might not be able to create significant engagement and suggesting more reliance on influencers who are not as popular.

According to the researchers, at low to moderate follower count levels, the overall engagement between influencer and followers improves. 

But as follower count rises, the positive effect becomes increasingly outweighed by the negative engagement likelihood effect caused by low perceived tie strength, leaving followers less motivated to engage with the influencer’s content and, thereby, reducing engagement. 

“In short, the relationship between an influencer’s follower count and engagement follows an inverted U-shape,” says Bleier.

Content customisation and sponsored posts

The research also shows that higher content customisation weakens the effect of influencer indegree on engagement. This leads to small and large indegree influencers becoming more effective at generating engagement compared to medium-sized indegree influencers. 

Similarly, when the campaign is sponsored by a mostly unknown brand, the effect of influencer indegree on engagement is less pronounced. As this relationship flattens, medium-sized indegree influencers become comparatively less effective at driving engagement.

“We deepen insights into the relationship between an influencer’s indegree and followers’ engagement with sponsored content. We also introduce two important campaign properties – content customisation and brand familiarity – as relevant concepts to the influencer marketing literature that condition how influencer indegree drives engagement,” Edeling explains.

Weis continues: “We highlight the peril of super-saturation effects on engagement when follower count becomes too large and show that the most effective follower count level is situated between the often-recommended ‘very small’ and ‘very large’ influencer tiers. 

“At the same time, advertisers and influencers also have room to manoeuvre, in that brands that allow influencers to promote content independently, and brands that are less known, observe a weaker inverted U-shaped relationship between follower count and engagement, reducing the pressure for them to collaborate with medium-sized influencers who have an optimal number of followers.”

The study offers the following advice for advertising managers to improve their influencer marketing strategies:

  • Brands should empower influencers with a large following to create original content in their own style, instead of repeating the brand’s official communications.
  • To maximise engagement, well-known mainstream brands should contract with influencers with neither too few, nor too many, followers.
  • Influencers with large follower counts might consider expanding their partnerships with lesser-known brands to enjoy mutual benefits.

Find out more about the research paper Finding Goldilocks Influencers: How Follower Count Drives Social Media Engagement here.

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    Dr Kin Kariisa

    Group CEO - Next Media

    Dr. Kin Kariisa is an extraordinary force at the helm of Next Media Services, a conglomerate encompassing NBS TV, Nile Post, Sanyuka TV, Next Radio, Salam TV, Next Communication, Next Productions, and an array of other influential enterprises. His dynamic role as Chief Executive Officer exemplifies his unwavering commitment to shaping media, business, and community landscapes.
    With an esteemed academic journey, Dr. Kariisa’s accolades include an Honorary PhD in exemplary community service from the United Graduate College inTexas, an MBA from United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering from Huazong University in China, and a Bachelor’s degree in Statistics from Makerere University.
    Dr. Kariisa pursued PhD research in Computer Security and Identity Management at Security of Systems Group, Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. As a dynamic educator, he has shared his expertise as a lecturer of e-Government and Information Security at both Makerere University and Radboud University.

    Dr Kin did his PhD research in Computer Security and Identity Management at Security of Systems Group, Radbond University in Nigmegen, Netherlands. He previously served as a lecturer of e-Government and Information Security at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and Radbond University in Netherlands.

    Dr Kin did his postgraduate courses in Strategic Business Management, Strategic Leadership Communication and Strategies for Leading Successful Change Initiatives at Harvard University, Boston USA.

    • Other current and previous roles played by Dr Kin Kariisa:
    • Lecturer of e-Government and Information Security to graduate students at Makerere University, Kampala and Radbond University in the Netherlands
    • Director of Eco Bank Uganda Limited, one of the largest banks in Africa
    • Chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, an umbrella industry association for all Television, Radio and online broadcasters in Uganda.
    • Chairman of Board of Directors of Nile Hotel International, that owns the leading hotel in Uganda, Kampala Serena Hotel.
    • Chairman of Board of Directors of Soliton Telmec Uganda, the leading telecom company in Optic fibre business managing over 80% of optic fibre in Uganda.